Increasingly, agencies are augmenting paratransit rides with non-dedicated providers — balancing demand and services, containing costs, and increasing access for riders, according to Jeff Zarr, senior consultant of demand response at Trapeze Group.
The benefits are multifold: utilizing services like taxi companies and transportation network companies (TNCs) can often be less expensive than extending dedicated service to remote or “unproductive” areas; assigning single-rider trips to outside providers allows for better usage of larger, dedicated transit vehicles; and non-dedicated providers can act quickly and feel more responsive to passengers on a single-rider trip.
“Supplementing paratransit services with non-dedicated transportation providers, such as taxis or TNCs like Uber and Lyft, is a creative solution to an old problem in transit: more demand for transportation than the ability to provide it,” Zarr said.
The San Diego Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) has embraced this “creative solution,” beginning a one-year pilot program in July 2018 where the agency’s paratransit division, MTS Access, sub-contracted with a local taxi provider. MTS Access, operated by First Transit, provides approximately 500,000 annual trips with over 170 vehicles. First Transit sub-contracted with a local taxi provider at MTS direction.
The agency considered a few different models and best practices for paratransit cost containment and service effectiveness before settling on the taxi program, said Jay Washburn, manager of Paratransit and Minibus at MTS. Washburn is responsible for the overall day-to-day administration of the MTS Access and Minibus Operations.
“We were looking for a model that would provide a more flexible of service to our clients while also generating cost savings to our organization,” he said. “On-demand paratransit is very popular, but often has negative ramifications on transit budgets.”
Because MTS did not have a grant or any special funds to expand the paratransit program, Washburn said that sub-contracting with a taxi company — operating under the exact same safety and operational standards as MTS Access — made the most sense.
Internal analysis determined that when multi-loading clients, with two to three passengers on a vehicle at once, it is most cost-effective to make the trip with a dedicated paratransit vehicle on the agency’s First Transit contract. Single-rider trips, however, were much less costly and more efficient when operated in conjunction with the local taxi company.
“We then identified trips that didn’t fit within our standard multi-load system, because of factors like number of passengers, time of day, origin and destination, and didn’t meet our standard boarding times or on-time percentages,” Washburn said. “Those trips, which would otherwise be affected by customer service and/or efficiency issues, are prime for the taxi program.”
Washburn said that all taxi drivers working with MTS Access are trained with the Passenger Service and Safety (PASS) driver and trainer certification program by the Community Transportation Association of America. The PASS certification deals specifically with transportation individuals with disabilities.
Through the first eight months of the pilot program MTS has provided over 36,000 trips by taxi resulting in a savings of over $800,000 to MTS.
Managing with Trapeze
Under the taxi augmentation model, all decisions are made based on parameters established by MTS. Passengers request a ride, and dispatchers determine the best mode of transport for that ride — taxi or MTS vehicle — based on service-model efficiencies.
MTS Access is using the Trip Broker module by Trapeze Group to assist with the decision-making process, and also as a way to interface with the taxi vendor in real time.
“Our eligibility department determines if a client is eligible and qualifies for the taxi service, which at this point does not include individuals using wheelchairs or with severe cognitive impairments – those trips are directed to our dedicated paratransit service,” Washburn said. “Once those riders are screened out, we work with the Trapeze system to determine the best mode of transportation for the remaining clients.”
MTS uses the Trapeze system to “push” a selected trip into the taxi company’s software, and the trip appears in that software alongside other taxi requests. After the taxi company has assigned a driver to the trip, MTS monitors the taxi’s GPS location on the Trapeze system and pushes that information to its customer.
“The real-time information gives much better visibility to not only passengers and dispatchers, but also to management overseeing delivery of services,” Zarr said.
Beyond the pilot program
With the same on-time window, average boarding time and fare rates as MTS’ fixed-route and dedicated paratransit services, Washburn said that the agency has done very well at making sure the taxi-augmented services are equal to the high standards of MTS Access.
Washburn said that 100 percent of recently surveyed customers indicated they want MTS Access to continue to augment paratransit services with taxis after the pilot program is completed.
“Riders we select for the taxi service are getting more direct pickups and ultimately much quicker trips than the service they had been accustomed to,” he said.